Jack Nicholson: Chinatown
Al Pacino: The Godfather Part II
Art Carney: Harry and Tonto (winner)
Dustin Hoffman: Lenny
Albert Finney: Murder on the Orient Express
I’ve seen surprisingly few movies from 1974, and many of the ones I have seen are wholly inappropriate as Oscar nominations for Best Actor. That said, Gene Wilder had a damn fine year, starring in both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles and getting nothing for both of them. Both Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman are worth talking about for Young Frankenstein, but both are probably more supporting. Cleavon Little could certainly be in the conversation for Blazing Saddles. Walter Matthau could be in the conversation here for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and speaking of conversations, Gene Hackman seems like a large miss for The Conversation. Finally, El Hedi ben Salem would be a very interesting choice in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Weeding through the Nominees
4. Just like I like Albert Finney, I also like Art Carney, but there was no real reason to give him the Oscar for Harry and Tonto. It’s a nice little performance in a sweet and harmless little film, but to think that he could have earned an Oscar for this is absolutely bizarre. The film itself is little more than a character study of a very quirky old man. Carney gives it his all, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with what he does, but there’s also nothing particularly grand or surprising. He’s good. It’s fine. But there’s no way it was Oscar-worthy.
3. Dustin Hoffman is very good in Lenny, and this is probably the first nominated performance that I would want to keep, although I wouldn’t give it the top prize. This is a film that is far bigger than the performance of one person, or even all of the people. The best parts of the film, and the things I wanted more of, were the bits of stand-up from Lenny Bruce. Hoffman manages to capture a great deal of a much larger than life personality, though. He deserves to be in the conversation, but not as the winner.
2. In a lot of years, I would hand this to Jack Nicholson for a drop-dead performance in Chinatown without even thinking about it. Nicholson plays the tough guy here, but one who is terribly broken and wounded, and forced to spend much of the film acting through that bandage on his face. It humanizes Jake Gittes and makes him real. It’s one of those roles where I legitimately can’t think of anyone else who could play it. Nicholson is just about perfect in it, and in just about every other year of this decade, he’d be my hands-down winner.